The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Isaiah 66:18-21 + Hebrews 12:5-7,11-13 + Luke 13:22-30
Catechism Link: CCC 2709
August 21, 2022
Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons.
In today’s Second Reading, Saint Paul speaks about the “trials” involved in spiritual discipline. He also refers to discipline as training. Writing to the Hebrew Christians, he explains: “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”
The verb “train”, like the verb “try”, is simple and not very exciting. To train for a new job at work, or for a new position on the team, or for the role of altar server at Holy Mass, is very simple. In fact, it’s pretty routine. But routine is at the heart of success. Trial runs are trials of a sort, even if not exactly the type of trial that St. Paul is writing about in the Second Reading.
Football players get tired and maybe even bored with running the same plays over and over and over again. Why do the same plays have to be run so many times? Most adults know the answer to that question from the experiences of life. Unfortunately, many won’t admit that the principles of discipline—that is, the connection between trial, training, and success—have any connection to the life of Christian prayer.
What role does discipline have in the experiences of Christian prayer? Discipline is needed in all three stages of prayer. First, there are the prayers that are spoken, like the Rosary or the Liturgy of the Hours. Second is the prayer called meditation, where one reflects on some mystery of the Faith or some truth about God.
Finally, there is the prayer which leads to communion with God Himself: what the Church calls contemplation. Within all three of these forms of prayer, discipline is needed.
Yet some people believe that contemplation does not demand discipline. They think of contemplation being as simple as going outside on a sunny day and soaking in the rays of the sun. Prayer for them is simply basking in the warmth of God’s love. The obvious problem with this analogy is that there are these things called clouds in the sky.
So also are there clouds in the life of prayer. In fact, at times there are also thunderclouds, lightning, and hail. This is true even in the prayer lives of the saints. The best guides in this regard are St. Teresa of Jesus (also known as St. Teresa of Avila) and St. John of the Cross.
But apart from the inclement weather of prayer, even more difficult to accept for those who want their prayer life to be sunny and 72° seven days a week is the fact of God’s silence. Why does God sometimes respond to our efforts at prayer with silence: that is, by offering us no response whatsoever?
In her book titled The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila speaks about the “interior and exterior trials” that God sets between Himself and the faithful Christian, and which call for disciplined commitment to prayer. She describes the exterior trials of gossip, persecution, and “the severest illnesses”. At greater length she describes interior trials. Within one of these interior trials, she explains: “The Lord, it seems, gives the devil [freedom] so that the soul might be tried and even be made to think it is rejected by God.” Regarding such trials, St. Teresa admits that “there is no remedy in this tempest but to wait for the mercy of God.”
As she describes this discipline of waiting for the mercy of God, St. Teresa notes that “at an unexpected time, with one word alone or a chance happening, [God] so quickly calms the storm that it seems there had not been even as much as a cloud in that soul …. And like one who has escaped from a dangerous battle and been victorious, it comes out praising our Lord; for it was He who fought for the victory. … Thus, it knows clearly its wretchedness and the very little we of ourselves can do if the Lord abandons us.”
In human endeavors—whether reciting multiplication tables, running passing plays, or hitting a high note on the trumpet—discipline leads us to become smarter, stronger, and more skilled. But in the life of Christian prayer, discipline teaches us how to rely not chiefly on ourselves and our talents, but on God and His mercy.